THRILLS, spills, a record for the skipper and a resounding win away from home – is this the sign that, at long last, normal service is about to resume?
On the first anniversary of one of the most famous European nights in their history, that unforgettable victory against Real Madrid, Liverpool really had no other option but to try and mark it in style.
While it would be wrong to suggest this 3-1 success against Unirea Urziceni will live as long in the memory as the one Yossi Benayoun’s header secured in the Bernabeu, there is no disputing it was just as well received.
Having at one stage looked as if they might fall flat on their faces, the Reds rediscovered some of their verve, counter-attacking with the menace Rafa Benitez had predicted to secure a place in the Europa League’s last 16.
Rifling in three goals for the first time in a match since September 26 was one thing, that Steven Gerrard managed to move clear on his own at the top of Britain’s all-time European scorers’ list was a significant other.
When teams have struggled to be creative and laboured for as long as Liverpool have done, sometimes it needs a game like this to set the wheels in motion once again and Benitez will certainly be hoping that is the case.
With conditions underfoot hardly conducive to slick passing – clerks of racecourses would surely have described the going as heavy with bottomless patches – Liverpool, from the first whistle, did their best to move the ball on the floor with purpose.
Never more was that apparent than after three minutes, when Lucas threaded an inch-perfect delivery into Steven Gerrard’s feet and, quick as flash, the captain unleashed a drive that Giedrius Arlauskis did well to beat away. He would get his reward later.
Yet long before that, it appeared that a night to rival the ones experienced against Lyon, Fiorentina and Reading would materialise, as Unirea – backed by a noisy home crowd – poked their noses in front, setting nerves jangling in the process.
Daniel Agger had done well to dispossess Marius Onofras but he only succeeded in giving away a corner. How costly it proved. From Razvan Paduretu’s ensuing corner, Bruno Fernandes rose highest to power a header past the stranded Pepe Reina.
For more than a moment, it seemed as if the nightmare scenario of yet another early exit would become reality; every corner Unirea hurled in caused palpitations and uncertainty and one shudders to think what would have happened had the hosts gone ahead on aggregate in the tie.
Thankfully, that grim prospect was averted; Jamie Carragher’s deep right-wing cross was headed back by Gerrard, the ball was half cleared and there, waiting gleefully on the edge of the box, was Javier Mascherano.
Many might have anticipated the Argentine’s shot either being screwed wide or hoisted high over the bar, but his strike was sweet and true and the ball sped past Arlauskis to settle any lingering nerves. It was, in some ways, fitting that Mascherano came to the fore just when it was needed; his performances during the past two months have been outstanding, his commitment absolute and his energy infectious – the longer he continues in such a vein, the better.
That howitzer took some of the wind out of Unirea’s sails and, though, to their credit, they tried to rally, Liverpool were able to kill the tie off when Gerrard’s deep free-kick was instantly controlled by Ryan Babel. The finish he produced was even better.
Love him or loathe him, it has clearly been difficult for Babel to find any kind of consistency as this was the first time during the current campaign that Benitez has felt compelled to hand him back-to-back starts. There is, of course, plenty of evidence to suggest Benitez’s tough stance has been correct, as other fleeting glimpses of talent when coming on as a substitute, Babel has merely flattered to deceive.
Good cameos – such as his lively 27 minutes in the first leg – have been followed by starts when he has been anonymous, as was the case in Sunday’s dreadful spectacle at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Here, though, was Benitez finally giving Babel a nudge of encouragement, a chance to eradicate disappointing episodes such as his Twitter outburst and show he can fulfil his World Cup dream by playing a part in Liverpool’s charge to the season’s end.
That exquisite piece of skill showed exactly what he is capable of.
We can only hope for more of the same from now – sentiments which apply to the team.
Unirea refused to roll over but Liverpool put the gloss on matters midway through the second period when Benayoun, released by Lucas, scurried into the danger zone.
Waiting to take over, inevitably, was Gerrard and his history-making strike had too much power for Arlauskis.
He barely raised his arm in celebration but, had he chosen to, few would have begrudged him.
In surpassing Alan Shearer’s previous best of 32, Gerrard etched another significant entry into his remarkable career. For a man who has operated primarily as a midfielder, 33 goals in Europe is, quite frankly, a stunning achievement.
And who knows? He might yet add a few more before the campaign is out.
He will get two more chances at least in the last 16 and, if Liverpool start to click, further chances to profit will await in the spring.
Should one arrive in Hamburg, so much the better; it would be folly to predict Liverpool are now going to go on and win the Europa League but this was a small step in the right direction.
If there was one negative it was the sight of defender Martin Skrtel leaving the stadium on crutches with a suspected broken foot, but Benitez will surely focus on the positives.
Now it is back to Premier League business and Liverpool have two winnable fixtures to complete before they are next on their travels. Take six points from Blackburn and Wigan and things will really start to take shape.
UNIREA URZICENI (4-1-4-1): Arlauskis; Maftei, Galamaz (Mehmedovic 28), Bruno Fernandes, Bordeanu; Paduretu, Paraschiv (Vilana 56), Apostol; Onofrej (Semedo 62), Bilasco, Frunze.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher (Kelly 61), Agger, Skrtel (Kyrgiakos 66), Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Benayoun (Aurelio 77), Gerrard, Babel; Ngog.
Goals – Bruno Fernandes (19), Mascherano (30), Babel (40), Gerrard (57)
Bookings – Babel (20), Bruno Fernandes (23), Onofras (28), Apostol (31), Arlauskis (54), Mascherano (61). Referee – Stefan Johannesson (Sweden)
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